I'm becoming more and more interested into how the human natural drive towards comfort shapes our lives and the detrimental effects it actually has on us. In this post, I will try to explain why this is happening and how we can improve our situation.
To begin with, let's see how comfort is officially defined. The Oxford dictionary says that comfort is:
- a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint
- consolation for grief or anxiety
Since grief or anxiety refer to mental states, I interpret the second part of the definition as a state of mental ease, so I can naturally view the definition of comfort as such:
comfort = a state of physical and mental ease and freedom from pain or constraint
If something hurts us physically, it means that it is causing us somehow harm. Our natural reflexes of self preservation tell us that it would be in our best interest to run away from it. For example, a source of intense heat, such as an open flame, could potentially be life threatening. Our body usually responds to such threats with pain, which in return leads to learning an avoidance response. Our survival instincts work thus by following a very simple, yet powerful, heuristic: since pain could potentially mean death, avoid it at any cost. Always seek comfort. It is always the safest thing to do, as it means the absence of pain, thus the absence of potentially deadly threats.
Very simple and yet very powerful.
However, this heuristic sometimes fails us badly. And to explain why, let's put things into a historical perspective. In prehistoric times, humans were hunted by other predators, so it made a lot of sense to be scared of any potential source of pain, regardless whether it represents a real danger or not, simply because there were so many sources of life-threatening situations.
Modern society, for at least a privileged part of the world, eliminated most of these sources of danger. The modern man, however, seems to have failed to adapt his life-support mechanism to this new reality. Hence, we seek comfort in situations where it is actually detrimental for us to do so. And to make myself better understood, let me give an example from my own personal experience.
For more than 10 years now, I've been a tobacco smoker and for more than 9 of these years I've trying to quit, albeit unsuccessfully. And I think the reason why I'm unable to quit lies in this same simple heuristic of comfort seeking. The negative effects of smoking are very well studied and very well known for everybody. Smoking can lead to a premature death and it is, as a fact, a life threatening situation. Quitting smoking is, however, an uncomfortable thing to do, since, by quitting, I would deprive myself of nicotine and I would experience the very painful symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. But quitting smoking would also save my life. Clearly, the heuristic of seeking comfort is failing me, because by remaining a comfortable smoker I am actually slowly killing myself.
Let me give another example. Sitting and watching television, instead of doing some physical exercise, is also a very comfortable thing to do, because it implies the lack of action, versus the pain of having to exert the body in training. However, sitting and watching television all day makes me very unhealthy in the long run. The beneficial effects of physical exercises have also been very well studied and are very well known for the public. Exercising should be a very desirable activity, but again, the heuristic of seeking comfort for the sake of pain avoidance is failing me, because, by remaining a comfortable couch-potato, I am failing to prolong my own life.
The question is why isn't my body naturally pushing me to do more exercise, why is it more comfortable for me to sit, than to move? Why I am a naturally a lazy bastard? Again, we can find the answer by taking a look at this situation from a historical point of view. Back in the cave-man days, physical activity would have naturally been imposed on us, by our other self-preservation needs. For example, in order to procure food, we had to hunt, in order to escape predators, we had to run, in order to find shelter, we had to jump or swim or whatever. Physical exercise was an activity that humans were naturally compelled to do. So again, evolutionary speaking, the simple heuristic of seeking comfort made a lot of sense. It basically pushed us to rest as much as possible, since probably the next day, we would have to exert our body to physical strain anyway.
It seems however that our basic survival instincts have not adapted to the realities of the new world we live in, where escaping predators or hunting for food is no longer a daily activity in our lives. It may also be that our own nature is smarter than us. It doesn't believe in the durability of this safe and modern world that we created, thus keeping us prepared for its eventual demise. Who knows?
The conclusion is, however, simple to understand, yet hard to put in practice, like all good things are. We have to simply be smarter than our own self-preservation instincts and apply our knowledge where we can. If something is causing us harm, even if it is comfortable, it we know it is not good we have to apply ourselves not to do it. Or, stated otherwise, if something can be beneficial for us, yet we are not doing it because it is not comfortable, we have to apply ourselves to do it. The basic truth is that our survival instinct, powerful as it may be, simply lacks the intelligence of thinking into the future. This can only be achieved with our minds.